Alphabet Coup

UPDATED 08/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

Four years ago, sixth grader Krystal Dobson was given an assignment to invent something. While her classmates at Pawnee Elementary School built candy machines and automatic dog feeders, the Overland Park, Kans., 11-year-old aimed a little higher. She'd just written a report on Louis Braille—the French teacher who invented the raised-dot writing system for the blind in 1824—and it occurred to her that blind children might like to learn the alphabet the way sighted kids do: with toy blocks. "Kids who can see have them, so I figured sight-impaired kids should have them too," says Krystal, now 15.

With the help of her parents—David, 39, a computer consultant, and June, 38, a secretary at a special—needs school—and her brother Michael, 7, Krystal sawed oak boards into 2-in. blocks and pounded linoleum nails into the blocks to form the braille alphabet. (Three coats of acrylic keep them durable.) "They're just right for preschoolers and kindergartners," she says.

The folks at the Kansas City, Kans., school district thought so too. After her assignment was over (she got an A), Krystal donated the blocks to the district's vision-impaired program, where they were an immediate hit. "The little ones get so excited when they begin to spell words with the blocks," says program director Millie Justice. Krystal is now at work on new sets she plans to donate to any vision-impaired program that wants them—provided she can raise money for materials.

Her parents say they aren't surprised. When she was 5, Krystal wanted so badly to communicate with a deaf man at her church that, using a Sesame Street instructional book, she taught herself sign language. "Krystal has always been sensitive to people with disabilities," says June. "I've never seen a more compassionate teenager."

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